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posted: 4/15/2012 1:00 AM

Stress: Can't live with it — or without it

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Stress. It's become a pop culture buzzword over the last few decades, and feeling "stressed out" is a common complaint of 21st-century life.

Based on whatever bit of expert (or not-so-expert) advice we come across, a good many of us anxiously search out the stressors -- things that create stress -- in our lives. And just as anxiously, we try to eliminate them.

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A stress-free life must be a happy life, we assume, so we do our best to reach a stress-free utopia.

I wonder if we've given stress a bum rap and misunderstood its place in our lives.

In fact, if we read works by prominent researchers on the overall effects of stress, a different -- and more complex -- picture emerges. These experts suggest that stress as we commonly perceive it is not always harmful, and it is necessary for our very survival.

To understand the researchers' conclusions, we need to somewhat change our definition of the word stress. Generally, we can view stress simply as the result of a demand that we cope.

Cold weather, for example, is a stressor -- a condition that demands we cope -- and thus results in stress. We can reduce stressful feelings by putting on a heavy coat, therefore coping with the stressor.

Sometimes, however, we fail to cope with a stressor. For example, if we are caught in a blizzard with only a light jacket and no nearby shelter, we may initially try to cope by pumping our arms, stamping our feet and trying to keep walking. Ultimately, though, our attempt to cope will fail, and we will probably succumb to stress -- freeze.

You may have jumped ahead of me by now to realize that stressors (and the resulting stress) are a natural, everyday part of all our lives. We are constantly coping with new things or situations, often without even thinking about them or even feeling much stress.

A lot of these stressors are necessary to our survival. Some are the very things that make life worth living. Food is a stressor (just ask your stomach), as is open heart surgery, family relationships and friendship, vacations, holidays, jobs, driving a car or any other situation we can think of that demands we cope. Life would be exceedingly dull without stressors and stress. Probably the only way to totally avoid feelings of stress is to be dead.

The problem with stress arises when we have too much of it. When we don't effectively cope in response to a stressor, or if the stressor continues and we are unable to deal with it long term, our stressful feelings can grow to the point that we begin to break down physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

The evidence is not all in, but researchers are beginning to believe that our inability to reduce stress can even play a part in our susceptibility to colds, the flu and even cancer. That's just great.

If stressors and the resulting stress are an everyday, necessary part of our lives, it seems like we are being set up for a whole host of problems. If we can't eliminate all these stressors, there has got to be some way to reduce our stress feelings to a safe level.

There are people who somehow are able to handle a good many major stressors without being overwhelmed. I think these individuals developed strategies to get a hold of their stress and keep it manageable.

Let me suggest to you three possible ways of doing this. First, we can try to avoid unnecessary stressors. We can sometimes pick and choose what stressors we allow ourselves to come into contact with. If we decide that a particular stressor is not worth the resulting stress, we can avoid it.

For example, if it is 30 below outside and we have a nice, warm house, it might make sense to avoid that cold weather stressor. Or, if a particularly nasty supervisor has been transferred to our section at work, we might avoid that stressor by asking for a transfer or changing jobs. We have managed our stress by intelligently choosing our stressors.

A second way to handle stress involves changing the way we think about a stressor. Our stressful feelings are a result of our perceptions of the thing or situation that is a stressor. If we change the way we think, we can reduce our stressful feelings.

For instance, if we have to go out in subzero temperatures, we can decide that it will be awful and we will never feel warm again for our entire lives. Or we can decide that things won't be all that bad. Hey, we have a good heater in our car, and it is just a short run from the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery store; things could be a lot worse! Or we can make an effort to look for good qualities in our new supervisor and consider how he adds value to the work of our section. Changing perceptions is an effective stress management technique.

A third possible way to keep a handle on our stressful feelings is to learn new behaviors for coping with our stressors. If we can learn to do things that enable us to decrease the effect that a stressor has on us, we will feel less stress. When the thermometer reads 30 below and we have to go out, we can wear warm clothing -- a new behavior that will significantly reduce the effect that the cold has on us. We might even get an especially attractive goose down coat to encourage us to dress extra warmly. If we can't get away from our new supervisor by changing departments at work or finding a new job, we might try to cope with this stressor by challenging ourselves to be as friendly as possible at all times, complaining to the department manager or taking a long walk at lunch to work off frustration. These are all ways of changing behavior to cope with a stressor.

I've suggested three primary strategies of stress management: avoiding some stressors, changing attitudes and learning new behaviors. All of these need to be tailored to our own individual situations, thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Stress management is a tool that has to be custom fitted to each user.

One very good way of learning your own unique stress management techniques and practicing these skills is to enroll in a stress management class or seminar. There are a number of such groups offered through area schools, churches, medical facilities and mental health centers.

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